By Krishn Kaushik
Highlighting the role of debate in a democracy, President Ram Nath Kovind on Monday said the system is "meaningful" only if citizens are "well informed". And excellence in journalism, Kovind said, "grants full meaning to democracy".
Addressing the gathering as chief guest at the 14th edition of the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards in New Delhi, the President said: "The quest for truth is, of course, difficult and easier said than done. But it must be pursued. A democracy like ours deeply relies on the uncovering of facts and a willingness to debate them. Democracy is meaningful only when the citizen is well informed. In that sense, excellence in journalism grants full meaning to democracy."
Kovind was speaking after presenting awards to 23 winners in 11 categories - across print, broadcast and purely digital - for outstanding work in 2018.
Kovind was speaking after presenting awards to 23 winners in 11 categories - across print, broadcast and purely digital - for outstanding work in 2018. Cautioning against the dangers posed by fake
news and paid news, the President said: "In the din of the "breaking news" syndrome that has consumed the media now, this fundamental principle of restraint and responsibility has been undermined substantially. Fake news has emerged a new menace, whose purveyors proclaim themselves as journalists and taint this noble profession."
In this context, Kovind said, if journalism has to remain relevant, "it has to reclaim its values of honesty and fairness".
"It has to, 24×7, reinforce its compact with citizens: that it will not bend, that it will always fight for truth no matter what the consequence, and that it will remain committed to finding the truth without fear or favour," he said.
The President said that "technology has drastically altered the nature of journalism", "given rise to a new breed of journalism" and "revived the old debates about the status of facts and opinions, about credibility and authenticity".
"What is desirable is objectivity, which allows journalists to be open to facts, and present all sides of a picture. Fidelity to facts, digging for truth and keeping one's lens clean and sharp is imperative," he said.
Referring to "these days", Kovind said journalists "tend to wear many hats in the line of their duty" and "often assume the role of an investigator, a prosecutor and a judge — all rolled into one". "Their versatility is praiseworthy. But that prompts me to ask if such a sweeping exercise of power is accompanied by genuine accountability?" he said.
The President also lamented that stories "exposing great social and economic inequalities are ignored" and replaced by trivia as a section of the media has "taken recourse to entertainment in the name of news".
However, he expressed confidence that that in the long run "quality journalism will prevail".
Referring to The Indian Express founder Ramnath Goenka, in whose memory the Awards were instituted in 2006, Kovind described him as "a matchless media personality who influenced the country both before and after Independence".
"The hallmark of his endeavour was an uncompromising journalism of courage. A journalism without fear or favour; its fundamental commitment to truth above all else," he said.
In his welcome address, Viveck Goenka, chairman of the Express Group, outlined the trajectory of Kovind's public life in the last 40 years, starting as a law student in Kanpur to becoming the President. "We couldn’t have had a chief guest who better encapsulates the values we celebrate this evening," he said.
Congratulating the winners, Goenka said that "they are firm in their resolve to embrace complexity, not reduce the story to either pro this or anti that… these stories tell us why journalism matters".
Anant Goenka, executive director of the Express Group, presented Kovind with a portrait of the President drawn by Surajit Dey, illustrator, The Indian Express.
Among those present at the awards ceremony were Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora, JD(U) leader KC Tyagi, CPI leader D Raja, eminent jurist Fali Nariman, former ABVP national organising secretary Sunil Ambedkar, Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati, and principal director-general of Press Information Bureau Kuldeep Singh Dhatwalia.
Raj Kamal Jha, chief editor, The Indian Express, said the awarded stories "not only celebrate the best in journalism, they also capture the zeitgeist of the year home by and they foreshadow that of the year ahead".
The Express Group instituted the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2006 as part of the centenary year celebrations of its founder, Ramnath Goenka. The awards aim to celebrate excellence in journalism, recognise courage and commitment and showcase the outstanding contributions of journalists from across the country.
This time, the winning entries covered a wide range of topics: From a series on sexual abuse of children in villages to children making their way through a river and walking over a 20-ft pipeline to go to school; from how uranium mining affects local communities to an investigation into faulty medical implants.